Activists fear new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will be even less safe than when BP's Deepwater Horizon spill devastated the Gulf.Drilling under new Gulf leases will be even less safe than before, activists charge, and exacerbate climate change. Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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By Ucilia Wang

Three environmental groups are suing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over new oil and gas leases in his 5-year plan to lease an unprecedented swath of seabed—78 million acres—in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two lease sales have drawn the opposition of the Gulf Restoration Network, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity. They contend that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) failed to adequately assess the potential environmental impact of the leases, one of which was sold in March and another that closes in August. The groups say BOEM’s analysis relied on two safety regulations that the Interior Department is now proposing to relax, making the drilling even less safe for the environment.

The two regulations are overseen by the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The Well Control Rule and Production Safety System Rule govern the equipment and operations of oil and gas wells, from design to decommissioning, as well as the safety and pollution prevention devices for offshore oil and gas production.

The plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on Monday, are seeking to block the lease sales.

The overall leasing plan, conceived under the Obama administration, would open 78 million acres for lease all at once. The plan seemed to contradict many of the other policies in Obama’s second term aimed at curtailing climate change. This practice will allow buyers to pick from the entire lot, or whatever wasn’t sold in previous sales, during a semi-annual auction that will last until 2022. Previously, the agency auctioned off parcels block by block.

“The Gulf of Mexico has been offered for leases for years, but now there’s a free-for-all without adequate protection, and that’s problematic,” said Chris Eaton, an associate attorney for Earthjustice, which is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

BOEM and Zinke’s spokespeople declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit described at length the health and safety risks—and the significant climate change impacts—that will come with so much more oil drilling.

But unlike other ongoing lawsuits that specifically challenge federal analyses of climate impacts for coal, oil and gas leases, the latest lawsuit isn’t taking aim at BOEM’s climate assessments for the two lease sales.

Eaton said the lawsuit does provide the climate change context, especially since the plaintiffs believe the federal government might have underestimated the amount of oil and gas that could be produced from the lease sales. But the Sierra Club and others ultimately decided to focus on other aspects of the environmental report instead.

“It comes down to what is your strongest legal claims. We don’t necessarily agree with whether they did (the climate analysis) correctly, but it’s not something we want to challenge considering there are so many other major flaws,” Eaton said.

The legal claims in the case won’t be new to the court. Eaton cited a case, Native Village of Point Hope v. Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior, in which several indigenous communities in Alaska sued BOEM several years ago over an environmental assessment for an offshore oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs in 2014 that BOEM underestimated the amount of oil that could be produced and didn’t adequately explain its calculation. An incorrect production estimate would also lead to inaccurate calculations for the likely environmental and climate impacts, such as oil spills, the appeals court said. BOEM prepared a new environmental analysis and conceded that the risk for oil spills was higher than originally anticipated if the leases were fully developed.  

The latest case concerning the Gulf of Mexico followed another lawsuit that the group filed last month against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over a delayed report on the impact of offshore oil and gas production on threatened and endangered species.

The biological assessment was last completed in 2007, before BP’s Deepwater Horizon spilled nearly 5 million barrels of toxic crude into the Gulf in 2010. The devastating impact of what is considered the largest marine spill in history prompted the federal government to start a new biological assessment in 2010. It’s still not done.

A new assessment will likely compel the government to tighten its environmental regulations over offshore oil and gas development.

The federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico already has about 2,000 oil and gas platforms, covered under 2,600 active oil and gas leases, according to the latest lawsuit.

“From 2011 through 2016, Interior’s records show more than four losses of well control per year on average in the Gulf. And Interior’s records show there is a fire offshore in the Gulf every three days on average,” the lawsuit said.